“It’s okay to seek help from others, it doesn’t make you weak.”

― Del Ali, professional football player

What is elite sports burnout?

British Premier League footballer Dele Alli has recently hit the headlines, having disclosed his personal experience of treatment for sleeping pill dependency, severe stress, and the help he has received for childhood trauma. Like other elite athletes who have spoken publicly about their struggles with mental health, Dele Alli’s interview has elicitedboth sympathy and curiosity on social media. It reveals a dark reality that many elite athletes are experiencingbehind closed doors whilst simultaneously putting ona brave face and performing in front of millions of people every week.

The pressure of having to produce results on demand, along with the certain knowledge that one error could cost them or their teammates dearly, can seriously affect an individual’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. Sports is a results business. There’s no talking one’s way out of a lack-lustreperformance or a “streak of bad luck”. The results, clear for all to see, will determine the future career of the elite athlete.

If the results arefavourable, an individual or team can breathe for a moment; whereas a player can be summarily dropped, and lucrative sponsorship deals lost if the outcome does not match expectations. At Addcounsel, we recognise that even if an elite sports star is on a winning streak, the stress of maintaining this, and the intense fear of potentially not delivering, can become unbearable. If many elite athletes are honest with themselves, the joy they may have felt as a child when first discovering their potential and their dreams of performing alongside the giants of the sporting world, are a far cry from the harsh reality and daily grind of the arena of elite sports. To be an elite athlete is to be a “product” on and off the pitch. The enjoyment and passion for their sport can be severely impacted by burnout.

Athlete burnout is caused by extreme physical, emotional, and psychological exhaustion. Women’s Sports Foundation states: “Professionals in sport psychology define burnout as physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment. Burnout in the context of elite sports, is when an athlete experiences overwhelming exhaustion from training and competition, resents or completely loses interest in the gameand experiences lower levels of achievement than previously demonstrated.”

Science Direct continues: “Athlete burnout appears to be a complex interaction of multiple stressors, inadequate recovery, and frustration from unfulfilled expectations, which is explained partly by maladaptive perfectionist traits and goals. This process is fuelled by a strong drive to validate self-worth, sometimes in conjunction with feelings of entrapment.”

Conditions and circumstances leading to elite sports burnout

The pressure of performing and competingat peak level with the most skilled and gifted athletes in a particular fieldcan undoubtedly take its toll over time. When an athlete reaches the top of their game, thereby competing among the world’s elite, they’re often at serious risk of sports burnout. Here are some of the conditions and circumstances which can lead to elite burnout:

Working too hard without sufficient recovery time

Depending on the sport, recovery and downtime will vary. High-energy sports, such as football (soccer), rugby and basketball, will involvea gruelling schedule. All too often, at the pinnacle of an elite football career, two to three matches will be playedin ten days. If an athlete is desperately needed, there won’t be adequate emotional, psychological, or physical recovery time. Exhaustion is a common by-product of elite sports. Some individuals have and will turn to and misuse legal mood-altering substances to temporarily reduce stress, while some have felt so pressured to maintain peak performance that they’ve resorted to using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Stigma of sports burnout

Unfortunately, due to the stigma around burnout, some athletes will resist being completely transparent about their conditionwith their coaches and teammates (the stakes are so high that missing even one match can jeopardise even the most secure contract).The competitive nature of an elite athlete may deter them from negotiating time out. Some may feel embarrassed crashing in the middle of a season or tournament and will risk injury and further physical and mentalstrain in order to avoid this. Our team of professionals at Addcounsel understandsthe shame a peak performance athlete can experience in circumstances such as these.

Financial stress

An elite athlete may be offered lucrative contracts and multimillion pound sponsorship deals, which might bring a sense of financial security at first, but will likely cause severe stress down the line. It’s well documented that 40% of English Premier League football players declare bankruptcy post-retirement. Many athletes who rise to the pinnacle of their chosen sport have come from low-income households (some from extreme poverty), where financial acumen may not have been learned from a young age. It can be emotionally and psychologically immensely destabilising for a very young athlete to be catapulted into sudden wealth. Unfortunately, many will burn through their capital at an alarming rate, fuelled by stress, anxiety, fear, and panic. Bad investments, giving away too much capital before firmly establishing a solid well-thought-out foundation/trust, and developing costly addictions such as compulsive gambling, has left many sportspeople bewildered in retirement, at a time of life when most entrepreneurs and professionals are enjoying the hard-earned rewards of their achievements.

The Independent reports: “Research by XPro, a charity for ex-players, suggests that three out of five Premier League players – who earn an average of £30,000 per week – declare bankruptcy within five years of retirement.” The article continues: “In the US, a 2009 report found 78 per cent of NFL players are either bankrupt or under financial stress within two years of quitting. In the NBA, 60 per cent are broke within five years.”

What is the link between high performance careers and executive burnout?

To reach the very top in the sporting world requires extreme dedication, hard work, personal sacrifice, and a compelling drive to compete and succeed. Very few individuals can pull that off, producing outstanding results over a ten to fifteen year period without interruption. Even the most exceptional will have dips in form. The wear and tear on the human body, physical injuries, chronic stress, personal relationships compromised due to gruelling schedules and long periods of absence, professional disappointments, ageing, can all lead to burnout for an elite athlete often relatively early on in their career.Some will be completely wiped out before retirement, showing little if any interest in their sport, just turning up for their fee at a much lower level of competition.

In a paper studying executive burnout, Cross-level Effects of High-performance Work Practices on Burnout, the authors from Tilburg University, Brigitte Kroon, Karina Van De Voorde, and Marc Van Veldhoven write: “Chronic high-job demands lead to PR38,5510 emotional exhaustion as an individual stress response, which results in detachment (emotional withdrawal from the job) and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment (feeling capable to do the job) (Maslach et al., 2001).”

The authors continue: “Burnout develops in essence from the starting point of emotional exhaustion in response to an overload of job demands, and eventually intertwines with every nerve of a person’s being. So, although the burnout syndrome consists of three dimensions, the emotional exhaustion component is the most central. In this study, we, therefore, focus solely on this emotional exhaustion dimension of burnout.”

Addcounsel has identified some of the symptoms of peak performance sports career burnout:

  • Losing motivation or inability to get into the rhythm of work
  • Intellectually knowing that it’s essential to perform and go the extra mile, but lacking the physical and emotional power to act on it
  • A significant dip in performance beingflagged by coaches and sponsors (some elite athletes never fully recover or rekindle their once spectacular performances)
  • Continuous fatigue, frequent injuries, and decreased motivation
  • Feelings of exhaustion and extreme tiredness. The simplest tasks become overwhelming
  • Feeling resentful towards the head coach/coaches, club executives, agents, colleagues/teammates, journalists, and sports fans
  • Withdrawal from personal and social engagements which were oncea source of enjoyment and renewed vitality
  • Feeling trapped, bewildered, and in some cases experiencing suicidal ideation
  • In some cases, seeking out mood-altering drugs or misusing gambling or sex, which may lead to a dependency and addiction

Contact us today

At Addcounsel, we understand the impact that elite sports burnout can have on your day-to-day life, particularly your career. You might find it impossible to fully focus at work, lack interest in your career objectives, and feel exhausted.

You don’t have to go through this alone. With the right treatment and support, you can go on to lead a happy and fulfilling life. Our private clinic takes an integrative and ‘whole person’ approach to treatment, focusing on the symptoms, triggers, and causes of your sports burnout. We will set you up with a personalised elite sports burnout treatment plan designed to help you get back on track and ready to take on the world.

Our dedicated team is here for you every step of the way and will help you navigate treatment smoothly, giving you the support and care you need to recover and flourish after leaving our one of our clinics in Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Chelsea, London.

Contact us today to start your recovery journey.


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